Who could have thought that the delicate, fine, silky threads of a spider’s cobweb could be woven into a canvas strong enough to withstand the abrasive strokes of an artist’s brush? But the hundred or so paintings that survive today in museums and in the hands of private collectors bear testimony to this incredibly ingenious, painstaking and time-consuming craft that the Austrian monks of the Tyrolean Alps practiced in the 16th century.
Cobweb painting, sometimes also called gossamer painting, are made on fabrics made of spider cobwebs or caterpillars’ silk. The cobwebs are collected from the wild, and great care is taken to remove twigs, insect parts, spider droppings etc. that become trapped and entangled in the web. After carefully cleaning the webs, they are stretched over a cardboard to form a thin canvas. Over this canvas a coat of diluted milk is applied to add strength. The canvas is now ready to paint, but it is still extremely fragile. Even a gentle poke of a finger can completely destroy a cobweb painting.
It’s hard to explain why monks went such great lengths to create something that’s so vulnerable to the slightest touch. Perhaps they sought to express their spiritual devotion and unwavering patience by mastering the most difficult canvas imaginable, muses Ina Cassier in an article published in the 1956 issue of Natural History. “The more fragile [the paintings] were, the more they were cherished,” she explained.
Artists used a variety of opaque watercolors to create the paintings. But the background areas were left unpainted, so that when held against light, the figures seem to float in an opalescent haze. The most skilled craftsmen were able to create even engravings by applying just the right amount of pressure to the canvas.